Protocol of Peace

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Protocol of Peace

United States 1910


The1910 Protocol of Peace was a historic compromise between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the major employers of women's garment industry centered in New York City. The protocol resulted from the peculiarities of the garment industry and from the remarkable combativeness of the garment workers. It represented—under the somewhat misleading label of "industrial democracy"—a union-inspired regulation of the garment business and a business-inspired regulation of the unions. The agreement was seen as a far-reaching partnership of the garment industry and the garment workers' union. It cannot be understood apart from the bitter and hard-fought strikes of 1909 and 1910 that made it possible. Some of the underlying dynamics that generated those strikes were never resolved and ultimately led to the decline of the protocol on the eve of World War I. The spirit of the protocol, however, continued to come to the fore at various times in future years within the garment industry and as a powerful impulse within the larger labor movement and political economy of the United States.


  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium. Its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1909: Founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government ov Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.

Event and Its Context

The garment industry has historically been marked by instability, mobility, and volatility. In addition to dramatic fluctuations that are endemic to the market, this labor-intensive industry with relatively light capital outlays has generated a cutthroat competitiveness among entrepreneurs. Businesses in the industry are often on the edge of bankruptcy and are always seeking to increase profit margins by subjecting their workers to intensified exploitation and innumerable indignities. The larger and more substantial manufacturers were historically supplemented by a vast network of smaller sweatshops, whose low wages and abysmal working conditions always acted as a drag to the workers in the "better" establishments.

This reality shaped the development of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and undermined the union's initial gains. These same conditions prompted explosive struggles, including the "rising of the 20,000" in 1909 and "the great revolt" of 1910. These bitter and hard-fought strikes inspired great heroism and won partial victories that secured the survival of the ILGWU. Yet the intensive class struggle set the stage for an experiment in class collaboration through the Protocol of Peace that was signed by the union and the employers' association.

Rising of the 20,000

In October 1909 Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), joined with socialist lawyer Meyer London and other prominent speakers to address an October 1909 agitational meeting of 3,000 shirtwaistmakers at New York City's Cooper Union. A young worker named Clara Lemlich challenged the assembly: "I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on a general strike!" The electrified crowd voted to strike and raised their hands in the Hebrew oath: "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise."

The demands included a union shop, a 52-hour workweek, limitations on forced overtime, a uniform price scale for piecework to be negotiated in each shop, the elimination of unfair penalties and charges for equipment and materials, and the end of the subcontracting system.

The ILGWU could count on the support of the AFL as well as the Socialist Party, the Women's Trade Union League, and an impressive array of social reformers, feminists, and intellectuals. There were also many who denounced the strike, with hired thugs and unsympathetic police introducing the element of violence and intimidation. The strikers held firm. The newly formed employers association was finally prepared to accept many of the demands (bargaining with the union's all-male negotiating team), but not the union shop or the elimination of nonunion subcontractors. The breakdown of negotiations with the employers' association and the erosion of AFL support caused the ILGWU leadership to end to strike in February 1910. Only weak contracts could be signed with individual shops, but 339 of the 353 firms in the employers' association signed union contracts.

Although many of the problems that had generated the strike remained unresolved, there was now an upsurge in ILGWU membership and a new vitality in the union. Out of this struggle, a number of female figures became prominent (if not powerful) in the ILGWU: in addition to Clara Lemlich, Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman and Fannia Cohn were among the best known. In this struggle and in the strike to follow, a number of men also distinguished themselves. One of the best known men in the confrontation was a former IWW dissident and tough-minded street fighter, Morris Sigman, whose later conservatism never eroded his base of support, especially among anarchist currents within the ILGWU.

Revolt of 1910

The struggle was resumed with less spontaneity and more careful organization with the "great revolt" of the cloakmakers on 7 July 1910. Men were in the forefront of this action, and the ranks of the strikers swelled to 60,000. "Many of our devoted workers wept tears of joy seeing their long years of work and sacrifice crowned with success," recalled ILGWU president Abraham Rosenberg. "To me it seemed that such a spectacle had happened before only when the Jews were led out of Egypt." Union ranks soared from about 20,000 to almost 75,000.

The demands included a 40-hour workweek, a hike in the minimum wage, ending charges for equipment and materials, elimination of the subcontracting system, and employment only of union members. The strike was solid and massively effective, with scores of newly trained union cadres mobilizing thousands in workplace shut downs, picketing, rallies, and mass meetings, and the action won widespread community support.

Whereas more than 300 smaller manufacturers caved to the demands, the larger firms in the Cloak, Suit, and Skirt Manufacturers Protective Association held firm. They continued to mobilize their considerable resources, including enlisting the aid of local officials for mass arrests and court injunctions against the efforts of the ILGWU. "We offer no apology for the general strike," proclaimed Socialist orator Meyer London, who was also a union lawyer and negotiator. "If at all we should apologize to the tens of thousands of the exploited men and women for not having aroused them before." He added: "This general strike is greater than any union. It is an irresistible movement of the people. It is a protest against conditions that can no longer be tolerated."

Upper-class Progressives intervened to mediate the conflict, foremost among them the future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who enjoyed a significant degree of confidence on both sides. Largely through his efforts, the sides negotiated a "Protocol of Peace" that brought an end to the strike on 2 September.

The Protocol

The protocol set forth both immediate and long-range components. Employers agreed to a 50-hour workweek, 10 paid legal holidays, payment of time-and-a-half for overtime, an increase in the minimum wage, establishment of mechanisms to oversee prices for piece work, and the abolition of inside contracting. Moreover, the agreement included a qualified acceptance of the union shop. Also out of the protocol there arose the Union Health Center designed to provide health care to union members who could not afford to buy it individually.

The long-range components of the protocol involved the establishment of three new institutions. A Joint Board of Sanitary Control, with representatives of union and industry, was to wipe out the remnants of the sweatshop by seeing that shops established a sanitary work environment. A Boart of Grievances, also with representatives of both sides, "replaces the strike," as ILGWU secretary-treasurer John Dyche put it bluntly. All disputes that the Board could not resolve would pass on to the third institution. The Board of Arbitration, made up of representatives of the "public" accepted by both sides, would be chaired by Brandeis.

According to Brandeis, "It was the purpose of the Protocol to introduce into the relations of the employer and the employee a whole new element; that is the element of industrial democracy." By this, however, he did not mean the socialist notion of "rule by the people" over the industries. Instead the agreement established "a joint control" of industry by the employers' association (representing the handful of wealthy owners) and the union (speaking in the name of the masses of workers) that functioned as equal partners "with joint control." This would eliminate those conditions that "prevented the employers and the employee alike from attaining that satisfactory living within the industry which it must be the aim of all effort in business to secure."

Samuel Gompers' comment that future wage increases would come as "adjustments on a scientific basis" suggested that there would be a common union-employer interest in the productivity and profitability of the garment industry.

Decline and Legacy of the Protocol

Although the protocol brought great public acclaim and some obvious improvements for the workers, it did not directly address a myriad of problems and tensions that continued to divide workers and bosses, despite all the rhetoric about "industrial democracy" and "social harmony." The agreement also contained profound ambiguities, especially for the more militant trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists in the union's ranks and who dominated the powerful Cloakmakers Joint Board in New York City. Many grievances began to pile up, and not everything could be arbitrated quickly or, from the workers' standpoint, appropriately. Powerful ILGWU leader John Dyche was a devoted supporter of the protocol, fully prepared to help enforce protocol provisions designed to control the union ranks, and he helped to break now-illegal strikes of union members.

The Joint Board brought in from Chicago the practical-minded but principled radical Abraham Bisno to head its dealings with employers. Bisno's efforts to interpret, apply, and expand the protocol in ways that would enhance the position and power and of the workers soon ran into dogged opposition both from the employers association and ILGWU president Dyche. Bisno was soon replaced by Dr. Isaac Hourwich, a highly respected academic with a legal background, long associated with the union, whose socialism was widely known to be of the most moderate variety. Hourwich also generated antagonism from the employers and from some union sectors (including public attacks from Dyche) as he rigidly insisted on his own authority to interpret and redesign the protocol on a more rational and equitable basis. Talk of "industrial democracy" had not allowed for actual worker control of the workplaces and their own conditions, nor did it even permit the union too much power in relation to the power of the employers. Hourwich finally went the way of Bisno.

In 1911 a disaster hit the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which had been one of the focal points of the 1909 uprising. Unsafe conditions had persisted at the plant and finally resulted in workers being trapped (and many leaping to their deaths) when a fire broke out. The death toll was 146 women and men. "I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here," said Rose Schneiderman at a memorial meeting. "Too much blood has been spilled." She spoke the feelings of many workers as she added, "I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement." There was no mention of the protocol here, and a rising tide of anger, frustration, and militancy ultimately culminated in the 1914 replacement of Rosenberg and Dyche with socialist Benjamin Schlesinger as president and militant strike leader Morris Sigman as secretary-treasurer.

Yet the spirit of the protocol persisted in the 1920s under Schlesinger and Sigman, and even more under David Dubinsky beginning in the 1930s. Legislation such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, which placed the authority of the U.S. government behind guarantees of union recognition by employers and compelled union enforcement of workers' contract obligations and industrial peace (with the government representing the interests of the "public" as central arbiter) drew on the principles of the protocol.

The spirit of the protocol also could be found in the post-World War II compact between dominant sectors of the U.S. business community and the labor movement. Unions would be accepted under the modified structure of the NLRA. The unions would act on concerns for the profit margins and productivity of the employers, with workers' wage increases and other benefits "scientifically" linked to the success of the capitalist enterprise, and a working-class commitment to a regulated capitalist economy that would provide decent living standards with extensive health and social services. Only in the 1980s did the underlying economic developments and class tensions lead to the erosion and partial collapse of this latter-day triumph of the protocol principles.

Key Players

Bisno, Abraham (1866-1929): Working in the garment trades from the time his family arrived in the United States from Russia in 1881, Bisno became involved in anarchist and socialist currents in Chicago and union organizing efforts.

Prominent among union leaders in the Chicago garment workers, he became a founder and leader of the ILGWU, though was often too militant for the organization's top leadership. He left the ILGWU in 1917 and went into real estate but maintained his labor and radical sympathies.

Dyche, John A. (1867-1938): Emigrating from Russia to England, and then to the United States in 1901, Dyche began as a socialist critical of outside "meddlers" in the labor movement. Dyche was hostile to trade union militancy and left-wing influence, knowledgeable about the garment industry, and inclined to collaborate with employers to secure the best deal for his members. He was ILGWU secretary-treasurer from 1903 until 1914.

Hourwich, Isaac (1860-1924): Arriving in 1890 from Russia to the United States, Hourwich became a professor with expertise in economics, law, and statistics. In 1912 he supported Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Progressive, thus alienating many of his socialist comrades. In the same year he published his classic study, Immigration and Labor. Long associated with the ILGWU, in 1913 the New York Cloakmakers' Joint Board enlisted Hourwich to help oversee the protocol. He left this position a year later amid fierce controversy.

Lemlich, Clara (1886-1982): Leaving Russia in 1903, Lemlich became immersed in the socialist milieau and became a militant union organizer and leader among the garment workers, especially during the rising of the 20,000. Active in the Women's Trade Union League and in woman suffrage struggle, she married a Russian immigrant worker (Joseph Shavelson, with whom she had three children) and became an early member of the Communist Party. She was active for many years in consumer struggles, tenants rights struggles, community struggles, and more. In later years she once again became a garment worker and rank-and-file member of the ILGWU.

London, Meyer (1871-1926): Coming to the United States from Russia in 1891, London switched from the Socialist Labor Party to the Socialist Party of America at the beginning of the new century. London was a lawyer who devoted his energies to serving the unions in the garment trades. As a Socialist, he was elected to Congress from New York City's Lower East Side in 1914, 1916, and 1920.

Newman, Pauline (1888?-1986): Newman emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1901. An activist in the Socialist Party and a garment worker, she was centrally involved in the rising of the 20,000. She worked for many years in the ILGWU in labor education and workers' health. In the 1920s she served as a director of the ILGWU Health Center, with which she was closely connected for much of her career. She was also active in the Women's Trade Union League.

Rosenberg, Abraham (1870-1935): Coming to the UnitedStates from Russia in 1883, Rosenberg was involved in the garment workers union beginning in 1890 and gained a widespread popularity among the union ranks. As president of the ILGWU from 1907 to 1914, he closely identified with the moderate policies pursued by the powerful secretary-treasurer John Dyche.

Schlesinger, Benjamin (1876-1932): A Lithuanian immigrant coming to the United States in 1891, Schlesinger became involved with the Socialist Labor Party and as an activist among garment workers, then with the Jewish Daily Forward and the Socialist Party of America. He was a capable organizer and leader of the ILGWU, for which he served as president in 1903-1904, 1914-1923, and 1928-1932.

Schneiderman, Rose (1882-1972): Schneiderman immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1890 and began working in the garment industry at the age of 13. In the early 1900s she joined the Socialist Party, in which she remained active until the 1920s, when she shifted to the Democratic Party. A leader in the rising of the 20,000, she became an organizer for the ILGWU, although much of her energy was focused in the Women's Trade Union League, in which she was prominent for many years. She had close ties to the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, and she served as secretary of the New York Department of Labor from 1937 to 1943.

Sigman, Morris (1880-1931): Going from Russia to England in 1901 and then to the United States a year later, Sigman got a job as a cloak presser and soon became a leading activist in the Industrial Workers of the World. He first challenged the ILGWU then switched over to it in 1907. He allied himself with socialists in the union and became secretary-treasurer in 1914, first vice president in 1920, and president in 1923, a position he held for five years during a "civil war" that broke Communist Party influence in the union.

See also: American Federation of Labor; International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU); Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Wagner Act.



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—Paul Le Blanc